Finding Joy in a Process
This dish reminds us of all things cooking.
I know very few people who have been lucky enough, to date, to have evaded a soul-sucking job. You know the one I mean? The one that leaves you zombie-like at days end from the mere act of doing the work or being in the place or enduring the boss or, heaven forbid, all three. You're not wonderfully exhausted from a good, hard day’s work. You’re instead so worn out from holding your tongue and reminding yourself that strangling people is against the law that by the time you get home you have just about enough energy to zap a frozen pizza and watch the overnight off-air signal. I was at just such a job when I discovered the Zen of risotto.
I'm not entirely sure, but it was likely a recipe in a food magazine, in which, by then, I should have been a stockholder. Each weekend, in my non-brain-dead time, I'd pour through them, planning the week's meals, the new recipes I'd try, and then I'd make the grocery store run. So though I don't remember the ingredients, I know that I'd made sure they were waiting in my kitchen. By then I'd gotten down the varieties of chop and I would have engaged in preparing the base contents for likely 15 minutes or so. During this time began the slow reawakening of my brain cells as they focused on avoiding digit loss. My senses perked by the aromas of the herbs and fresh vegetables and, for the first time in that day, everything before me bent to my will. The burner ignited, the sauté began, before me were wine, stock, and arborio rice. I followed the recipe step by step, heating olive oil to a golden smolder, stirring in the rice until each piece was coated with hot oil. The wine sizzled as added and then it was gone. In an act of blind faith, I began to stir in the stock 1/3 cup at a time, allowing each to bubble, reduce, and seemingly disappear. In the beginning, not much happened. By halfway through my stock….what? What was happening? "’Tis true, there's magic in the web of it." This rice was producing a cream. How was that even possible? What sorcery! I tasted and it was hard as rock but rather tasty, and the more I cooked, the more stock I added and reduced, the more cream appeared. A Zen rhythm set in and my entire world and my supremely dreadful day evaporated with the stock. Twenty or so minutes later, I tasted again. The rice was done but, I won't lie, it wasn't a great dish. It was, in fact, quite dull and that mattered not…one…iota. For the first time in my life, I became dedicated to a process, not a result. Over the years, I'd make more only-ok risottos, one horrid thing that wound up in the trash but hundreds more stellar dishes. Over that time, it has always remained, for me, about the process. It is the quiet, concentration required at the stove, the moment by moment adjustments needed and the coaxing of the cream.
Over the years, I've learned a few things.
Amanda Hess once wrote in the NY Times Magazine that constant stirring was not required. I never read her column again. One of my very best friends informs me her insta-pot version is just as good. She is only still a best friend because, over the 30 years I've known her, it's her only grave error. So yes, you will read and hear lots of people say the slow addition of liquid is not necessary, that the constant stirring is not needed, that frankly, all that time-consuming stuff isn't required. To this, I can only respond with my experience, in the words of Marcella: "It is only through the gradual administration of small quantities of liquid, through its simultaneous absorption and evaporation, and through constant stirring, that the rice's soft starch is transformed into a clinging agent, pulling the grains together and fastening on them the taste of the flavor base. Rice that is not stirred, that stews in a too much liquid, that cooks in a covered pot, may turn into a perfectly agreeable dish, but it is not risotto and will not taste like risotto."
Everything about risotto rests in the rice. It is truly the bones of the dish. The starch remaining in the rice depends on the freshness of the rice. Don't buy your arborio from the adorable Italian grocer down the street if it's dusty. In fact, don't purchase dusty arborio or arborio you can't view in the package ever, anywhere. Rice is a produce. It's a living thing. Well, actually, it's dying plant once harvested, and if you have any kind of rice in your cupboard right now that is more than a year old, I want you to stop reading and chuck it into the compost. I can't show you here what fresh arborio looks like so I'll just say, buy it where it turns over frequently. The best I've found in California is from Whole Foods, not because it's the best arborio but because it's the freshest.
Banquet risotto, literally, does not exist. It's like a unicorn, like an abomination of a unicorn. If risotto comes out in a hotel pan, in a Hilton or any hotel or restaurant banquet room, it is nothing but agreeable rice. Actually, I’d doubt it's even agreeable as it's more likely a gloopy mound of salty starch. Do not be fooled. This stuff gives risotto a bad rep.
Restaurant risotto is also a unicorn…almost. Before you buy risotto in a restaurant again, please consider what it takes to make risotto from scratch. Now that you know this information, you know that restaurant must have dedicated two stove burners and one human for a MINIMUM of 30 minutes to that one dish you are eating. Seriously? Yep, no. Your risotto is not worth the price of that kitchen real estate and that labor. It would be near impossible to charge enough. They par cook the rice to almost done, with too much liquid, and then they pull it out by the serving and finish it for a few minutes on the stove top. They have no cream, so they melt in a bunch of cheese. It may be agreeable, yes. It's also when "risotto" becomes the Italian word for a $20 plate of rice.
As with anything you cook, find someone who does it better than you. We were lucky enough to be in Venice, meandering midday down a street near the opera house when suddenly Bess was no longer at my side. She'd stopped at an open window. When I backtracked, I saw two gents cooking in a galley kitchen not more than 250 square feet, engaged in the ballet of cooking that happens in the best restaurant kitchens in the world, most of which are far smaller than you'd ever imagine. Bess said, "I want to eat here." That night the restaurant, whose menu hangs on our dining room wall to this day, had a notice for their special, a risotto, for a minimum of two persons, with a minimum timeframe of thirty minutes. My wish was granted. Making risotto is part craft and part magic. The risotto I tasted that night was simply brilliance in both. The entire meal was so delicious we broke an on-holiday rule and returned a second night, asking only that the kitchen make us dinner in five courses. Chef’s choice with only two requests, no shellfish due to allergies and please...another risotto. I was humbled and awed yet again as the chefs themselves brought each remarkable dish to our table. I love it when food and people amaze me.
If you'd like to know precisely how I feel about risotto find yourself a little movie called “Big Night” and give it a watch. It is not only my favorite food movie but it has the best conversation about risotto ever scripted. Then find something--anything really--bread making or meat smoking, cakes or casseroles, soups or salsa, where the process of creation matters as much or more to you than the result. When you do that, you are lucky enough to find two pleasures in one experience, two passions even. One in the making and one in the eating.